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U.S. court upholds L.A. ban on billboards

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling

January 07, 2009|David Zahniser and Phil Willon

A federal appellate court issued a ruling Tuesday upholding Los Angeles' citywide billboard ban, handing a rare victory to the city in its uphill battle to regulate outdoor signs.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said the city's 2002 outdoor advertising ban does not violate a sign company's 1st Amendment right to free speech, reversing a lower-court ruling.

Outdoor advertising company Metro Lights LLC had argued that the city could not prohibit new "off-site" signs -- images that advertise products not sold on the immediate property -- while at the same time selling advertising space on city-owned bus benches and kiosks. Metro Lights had accused the city of auctioning off "1st Amendment rights to the highest bidder."

"This is strong, if rather sloganeering, language, but after reviewing the case law on which Metro Lights relies, we believe it to be little more than a canard," the court wrote.

Paul E. Fisher, the Newport Beach attorney who represents Metro Lights, said his client had not decided whether to appeal the decision. The opinion, if upheld, could influence lawsuits over municipal sign laws across the nation, Fisher said.

"It's certainly a significant ruling, and it is a blow to the outdoor advertising industry," he added.

The ruling would have the force of law only in the nine Western states that fall under the 9th Circuit's jurisdiction -- California, Nevada, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Alaska and Hawaii. But lawyers with City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo said cities as far away as New York had been waiting to see what the 9th Circuit would do. In addition, at least five other lawsuits in Los Angeles have referenced the Metro Lights case, said Deputy City Atty. Kenneth Fong.

The ruling comes as the city's elected officials struggle to limit the size, location, brightness and sheer number of new signs. Since the ban was approved seven years ago, Delgadillo has had to respond to more than a dozen lawsuits, including one that led to a legal settlement allowing as many as 840 billboards owned by CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel Outdoor to be converted to a digital format.

Last year, a federal judge sided with World Wide Rush, a firm that argued that the city cannot ban billboards while allowing certain exceptions, such as a zoning district near Staples Center that permits outdoor signs. That ruling, which is on appeal, still prohibits the city from enforcing its 2002 billboard ban.

Several other sign companies have followed World Wide Rush into court, using the same legal argument, according to the city's lawyers. Meanwhile, one billboard firm, Summit Media has filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of the settlement agreement with CBS and Clear Channel.

With neighborhood groups furious over the city's inability to enforce its laws, the council approved a new, temporary 90-day sign ban. Although the moratorium took effect Dec. 26, some unpermitted signs have continued going up, according to the city's lawyers.

Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose Westside district takes in coastal neighborhoods, applauded Tuesday's ruling, saying it would give the city credibility in its battle against billboards. "Obviously, we have seen billboards pop up like mushrooms in our district," he said. "It has been totally out of control."

At the heart of the Metro Lights case are two votes by the City Council. In 2001, the council awarded a contract to CBS-Decaux LLC for advertising on municipal "street furniture" -- restrooms, magazine stands and bus shelters. Months later, the council imposed a citywide off-site sign ban, saying such images have a negative effect on traffic and visual aesthetics.

Metro Lights argued that the ban was unconstitutional, with the city favoring one form of advertising over another. That legal argument was also embraced by Michael McNeilly, founder of the Beverly Hills-based company SkyTag, whose website promotes graphics "so large they can be seen from space."

In a lawsuit filed in August, McNeilly argued that the city could not regulate "supergraphics" -- images applied to vinyl or plastic and placed on the sides of buildings -- while selling its ad space at Los Angeles International Airport and on other city facilities.

Last month, images of the Statue of Liberty with McNeilly's name began appearing on the sides of multistory buildings on Wilshire, Westwood and Santa Monica boulevards. City inspectors said they have launched investigations into at least three buildings with McNeilly images.

McNeilly has not responded to requests from The Times for interviews. But in an e-mail, he argued that his Statue of Liberty images are murals and cannot be controlled by the city.

"The murals of the Statue of Liberty are an artistic and political expression protected by the 1st Amendment," he wrote last week.

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david.zahniser@latimes.com

phil.willon@latimes.com

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